Urgent COBRA meeting to stop strikes bringing Britain to standstill

Health secretary on impact of ambulance strikes amid pay dispute

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Plans for military staff and civil servants to cover for Border Force staff at airports and ports are among the contingency measures set to be thrashed out at a Cobra meeting.

The Government confirmed that military personnel and civil servants are being trained to help step in, as the country faces an intensifying wave of planned strikes over conditions and pay this month from nurses, paramedics and rail workers to Border Force officials.

Staff at Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff airports will strike for eight days from December 23 to New Year’s Eve.

The Government said that members of the armed forces will also be deployed to hospital trusts across the country in order to familiarise themselves with vehicles ahead of an ambulance strike scheduled for December 21.

Some members are already being trained up as part of contingency planning by Border Force officials, as the Government aims to avoid widespread travel disruption at Christmas.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden will lead the first of two Cobra meetings this week which will be attended by transport, health, home office and defence ministers.

Another meet is scheduled to take place on Wednesday.

Mr Dowden said he called on unions to call off the “damaging” strikes.

He said: “The stance the unions have taken will cause disruption for millions of hardworking people over the coming weeks.

“The Government will do all it can to mitigate the impact of this action, but the only way to stop the disruption completely is for union bosses to get back round the table and call off these damaging strikes.

“Although departments are responsible for plans in individual sectors, it is right that the Cabinet Office coordinates a cross-Government response.

“I will be chairing a series of Cobra meetings over the coming weeks to ensure our plans are as robust as possible, and that disruption is kept to a minimum.”

With a series of rail strikes also planned between now and early January, the Government has said it was working with Network Rail and freight companies to prevent delays and to ensure coal, steel and waste are prioritised.

It comes as crunch talks to avert a damaging nurses strike this week could take place within 24 hours.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay has written to Union bosses saying he is willing to hold face-to-face discussions to help end the standoff.

Nursing union leader Pat Cullen says she will halt the strikes – but only in exchange for talks over pay.

Mr Barclay has said he is “deeply concerned” about patient health with up to 100,000 set to walkout on Thursday and on December 20.

Ms Cullen, the head of the Royal College of Nursing, said she will call off this week’s strike if the Health Secretary negotiates “seriously” over pay.

“I won’t dig in if he doesn’t,” general secretary Pat Cullen told BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg.

But Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said pay was a matter for non-political independent review bodies.

The RCN union is calling for nurses to be given a pay rise of 5 percent above the RPI inflation rate, which was 14.2 percent in October.

The government has previously announced average pay increases of 4.5 percent for doctors and 4.75 percent for other NHS staff – including nurses – in England next year.

Ministers agreed to these after a recommendation by the independent pay review bodies that make suggestions about NHS pay rises.

Ms Cullen urged the health secretary to hold talks with her on a one-to-one basis or negotiate through Acas, the independent organisation which mediates disputes between employers and workers as early as Monday morning.

She said the union would not be “found wanting” in the negotiations but she said its position had not changed.

Asked if the union could accept a lower pay rise, Ms Cullen said: “Come to the table and let’s have the discussion.”

Mr Cleverly said Health Secretary Steve Barclay had already met with union officials, but added: “Ultimately, salary negotiations are done between union leaders on behalf of their members and their employer. And in this instance, the nurses’ employer is the NHS.”

NHS England’s medical director Prof Stephen Powis said pay was a matter for the independent review body and the government.

He said emergency services and key treatments like kidney dialysis and chemotherapy would continue during the walkouts, but that services would be disrupted.

Under trade union laws, life-preserving care has to be provided during strike action.

Prof Powis said there was “trouble brewing this winter” for the NHS, with an increase in people arriving at A&E and a rising number hospital patients with flu.

Both Mr Cleverly and Prof Powis said the NHS was prepared for the strike and wanted to minimise any disruption.

The Scottish government increased its offer to nurses and other health workers to a minimum increase of £2,205 with more for some staff – that was equivalent to an average 7.5 percent increase.

Talks with unions are ongoing and the public service workers’ union Unison has recommended the offer to members in Scotland.

Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, said that if Mr Barclay was to mirror Holyrood’s approach and commit to boosting wages this year, “the threat of pre-Christmas strikes could well be lifted”.

The Department of Health and Social Care said the government accepted the recommendations of the independent NHS Pay Review Body in full, meaning newly qualified nurses had a 5.5 percent increase while those on the lowest salaries, such as porters and cleaners, received a pay rise of up to 9.3 percent.

“Ministers have had constructive talks with unions, including the RCN and Unison, on how we can make the NHS a better place to work – and have been clear the door remains open for further talks,” a spokesperson for the department added.

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